The Ghost of the Hunchback (怪談せむし男, Hajime Sato, 1965)

The old, dark house fetches up in Japan in Hajime Sato’s slice of weird, gothic horror The Ghost of the Hunchback (怪談せむし男, Kaidan Semushi Otoko, AKA House of Terrors). Long in circulation only in an Italian dub, Sato’s B-movie romp owes an obvious debt to Mario Bava but also to similarly themed gothic chillers such as Robert Wise’s The Haunting somewhat repurposing the central nexus of the cursed mansion as a black hole of morality sucking into its orbit the sinners of the post-war society each it seems both victims and embodiments of their times. 

Opening in true gothic fashion with lightning and a full moon, Sato zooms in to a strangely creepy yet ordinary Western-style villa where the soon-to-be widowed Yoshie (Yuko Kusunoki) is woken from a dream in which she had a premonition that her husband, who we learn has been in a vegetative state for some time, had something he desperately wanted to tell her. Shinichi has indeed passed away while apparently imprisoned under the care of his father, Munekata (Kazuo Kitamura), a psychiatrist who seems less than moved by his son’s death describing it as the least he could do to repay the debt he owed to his parents. It seems that Shinichi had been in the hospital following an “incident” some time previously and though Munekata insists that his brain had been “destroyed”, younger doctor Yamashita (Shinjiro Ebara) echoes Yoshie’s dream in informing her that immediately before he died it seemed that Shinichi, who had long been mute, was desperately trying to tell him something. Meanwhile, Yoshie begins hearing strange noises emanating from the coffin and opens it to find a chrysanthemum clenched between her husband’s teeth. 

After the funeral, she’s visited by a lawyer claiming that Shinichi entrusted a key to him to be given to his wife in the event of his death along with the deed for a mountain villa where “the incident” took place. Later, everyone comes to the conclusion that what Shinichi wanted to tell them was not to go to the mansion, but of course what else was Yoshie supposed to do other than investigate. A classic gothic estate swathed in fog and hidden behind ornate iron gates, the remote country house also turns out to have a hunchback custodian (Ko Nishimura) as well as a weird, demonic statue standing inconveniently in the hallway. Soon after arriving Yoshie is attacked by a crow, told of “the incident” by the hunchback, and begins to hear strange noises including disembodied laughter before she is eventually joined by Munekata, Yamashita, and her niece Kazuko (Yoko Hayama).

Yamashita tries to rationalise that the noises are just the normal kinds of creaking born of “deformation” as a building naturally ages, literally becoming warped with time, while the stress of living in such an environment, he claims, can eventually drive one mad. He’s come along to investigate believing that Shinichi’s illness is connected to the mansion. Yet the old, dark house in this case is somewhat divorced from its gothic roots in being transported to Japan where it is in a sense “new” and “foreign” rather than an ancient relic weighing heavily on the shoulders of declining aristocracy. Even so we do indeed have something of that in the later revelations of previous owner Baron Tominaga and his particular grudges which, in this case, are if only partially rooted in wartime trauma, the mansion apparently also once home to an anti-aircraft depot the remains of which can be seen in the grounds. 

The war may not be the corrupting force in play but it’s certainly a factor, especially the surprising accusation thrown at Dr. Munekata that he participated in wartime atrocity in being party to vivisection, a claim he does not dispute but defends in insisting his actions were justified in the name of science. The house has not so much called them, but each of the “guests” is in their own way morally compromised, Munekata not only a war criminal but a venal, lecherous old man hoping to get his hands on the house to open a sanatorium by fulfilling his quasi-incestuous desire for Yoshie. Yamashita, meanwhile, is not exactly pure hearted either, using what he knows about Munekata to blackmail him into standing down so he can become the director in his place and marry his wealthy girlfriend, Akiko (Keiko Yumi), who has also turned up to join in the haunted house fun. As far as sin goes, Yoshie is largely without it but perhaps pays for daring to own her sexuality, rejecting Munekata’s advances but apparently having made a habit of getting into bed with her comatose husband despite knowing of his many affairs which may be the reason for his punishment by the house. Only Kazuko remains pure and innocent save her one-sided attraction to Yamashita, the only one of the gang to show any kind of compassion towards the admittedly strange hunchback. 

In keeping with the house, Tominaga and the hunchback are later revealed to be Christians, though in a gothic inversion they are also the source of the “evil” that infects the creepy old mansion once again positioning Christianity as a foreign corruption but also in this case punishing post-war moral failure. Sato conjures an atmosphere of pure gothic chill complete with oversize cobwebs, doors which open and close on their own, a crow infestation, and even a passing shinto priestess (Mitsue Suzuki) who just had to drop in because of the powerful emanations of evil echoing from the mansion but leaves his collection of extremely flawed humans very much at the mercy of their own demons as they desperately try to escape from the House of Terrors. 


Ran (乱, Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

ran posterAkira Kurosawa is arguably the most internationally well known Japanese director – after all, Seven Samurai is the one “foreign film” everyone who “doesn’t do subtitles” has seen. Though he’s often thought of as being quintessentially Japanese, his fellow countryman often regarded him as too Western in terms of his filming style. They may have a point when you consider that he made three different movies inspired by the works of Shakespeare (The Bad Sleep Well – Hamlet, Throne of Blood – Macbeth, and Ran – King Lear) though in each case it’s clear that “inspired” is very much the right word for these very liberal treatments.

In the case of Ran (乱) – a loose adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa moves the story to feudal Japan and an ageing king who this time has three sons rather than three daughters. This leaves Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) with a smaller problem than Lear’s though in his original idea of making his eldest son his heir with the other two inheriting smaller roles it’s clear things aren’t going to end well. Just as in the original play, the oldest two sons Taro and Jiro sing their father’s praises with cynical glee but the youngest and most sincere, Saburo, refuses to play this game as his respect for his father is genuine. Unfortunately, Saburo’s honesty sees him banished from his father’s kingdom and his share of responsibility given over to his treacherous brothers. Predictably, neither is satisfied with what they’ve been given and it’s not long before a familial conflict has sparked into a bloody civil war.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child….Hidetora is not quite as far gone as Lear in Shakespeare’s original text at the beginning of the film yet he is still unable to see that his oldest two sons have placed personal ambition ahead of filial piety. Hidetora was once a fearsome, if cruel, warrior, famous for burning enemy villages and creating peace only through destruction. He’s old now, and tired and so he proposes to hand over the running of the kingdom to his eldest son, yet – he wants to remain the de facto leader until the very end. Of course, that doesn’t sit well with Taro, or more to the point his ambitious wife Lady Kaede. Hidetora is thrown out of Taro’s castle and then also from Jiro’s before all out war erupts between the two leaving him totally isolated – a king without a kingdom.

Hidetora’s true madness begins when he realises not only how little regard his eldest two sons hold for him, but also that his failure to recognise the true nature of the situation has lead to the deaths of the people in his care that have remained loyal to him to the very end. As the enemy begin to engulf the castle, concubines begin helping each other to commit suicide in order to avoid ravishment while others try to escape but are cut down by arrow fire. This is all his own fault – his ruthless cruelty has been filtered down to his two oldest sons who, as he did, will stop at nothing in the pursuit of power. What is a king if not the father of a nation, and as a father he has failed. Neither Taro or Jiro are worthy of the offices afforded to them and lack both basic humanity and the princely power one needs to become the unifying force of a people.

Only too late does Hidetora see the wisdom in Saburo’s words and finally understand that he has alienated the only one of his children that truly loved him. From this point on his madness increases and Nakaidai’s performance becomes increasingly mannered and theatrical as if Hidetora himself is acting in another play which only he can see. Wandering and lonely, the once great king is reduced to the estate of a beggar led only by his fool and sheltered by the ruins of a castle which he himself burned down.

However, as great as Nakadai is (and he always is), he’s very nearly upstaged by the young Mieko Harada as one of the all time great screen villainesses with the Lady Macbeth a-like Lady Kaede. Filled with a vengeful fury, Kaede is unafraid to use every weapon at her disposal to achieve her goal. No sooner is she brought the news of her first plan’s failure in the death of her husband than she’s embarking on a plot to seduce his brother which includes getting him to execute his wife. Vile as Kaede’s actions often are, her desire for revenge is an understandable one when you consider that Hidetora was responsible for the deaths of her family leaving her to become a trophy bride for the son of the man that killed them. Viewed from another angle, it would be easy to sympathise with Kaede’s desire to rid the world of these cruel and tyrannical lords were it not for her insistence on the death of Lady Sue – a woman in exactly the same position as herself whose death would not actually advance her cause very much at all.

Kurosawa films all of this from a distance. We, the audience, almost become the gods he speaks of – the ones who weep for us, watching silent and helpless, unable to save us from ourselves. We see the world for what it is – chaos, horses and men and blood. The battles aren’t glorious, they are frenetic, frightening and ultimately pointless. Though for all that there is a beauty to it too and the sheer scale of the production with its colour coded princes and immense armies is one the like of which we will never see again.

Ran presents us with a prognosis which is even more pessimistic than that of Lear. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, as profoundly tragic as it is, there is at least the glimmer of hope. There is a new, rightful king and the idea that something has been restored. Here there is no such resolution, we are the blind man casting a stick around the edge of a precipice, entirely alone and unable to see the gaping chasm which extends before us into which we may plunge headlong driven only by the chaos in our own hearts. In the end, Kurosawa’s message is not so different from Shakespeare’s – all the weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Fathers and sons must strive to understand each other, and themselves, lest we fall into the eternal chaos which leads us to build our very own hell here on Earth.


Ran is currently playing in UK cinemas in a brand new 4K restoration courtesy of StudioCanal!